Constance Lytton

Constance Lytton

Constance Lytton, the daughter of Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton and Edith Villiers, was born in Vienna on 18th January 1869. Lytton was the Viceroy of India and Constance spent the first eleven years of her life in India. Educated by a series of governesses she had a very lonely childhood.

In 1892 Constance fell in love with a man with lower social status than the Lytton family. Lord Lytton had died the previous year, but her mother refused to grant permission for her to marry this man. For several years she hoped her mother would change her mind, but this did not happen and Constance Lytton refused to contemplate marrying anyone else.

Constance Lytton's sister Betty Bulwer-Lytton, married Gerald Balfour, a keen supporter of the women's suffrage movement. So also were two of his sisters, Frances Balfour and Emily Lutyens. Constance found their ideas on women's political rights interesting but her preoccupation with her unhappy love affair and poor health stopped her joining the suffrage movement.

In 1906 Constance Lytton visited the Espérance Club, an organisation that had been established by Mary Neal and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. The club was influenced by the ideas of William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Walt Whitman. The women were also involved in helping a group of young women establish a co-operative dressmaking business, Maison Espérance, in Wigmore Street.

Neal and Pethick-Lawrence were also active members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). At first she disagreed with their militant tactics. In a letter written on 8th September 1906 she told Adela Smith: "I met some suffragettes down at the club in Littlehampton… I had a long talk with Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence. She mostly talked Woman Suffrage, about which, though I sympathize with the cause, she left me unconverted as to my criticisms of some of their methods."

However, she was willing to help the women who had been imprisoned as a result of their actions: "They (the suffragettes) have come into personal first-hand contact with prison abuses. My hobby of prison reform has thereby taken on new vigour… I intend to interview the female inspector of Holloway prison, and will take part in the Suffragette breakfast with the next batch of released Suffrage prisoners on September 16." Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence also asked her to seek a meeting with Herbert Gladstone: " Could I see to it that Herbert Gladstone was asked to treat the Suffragettes as political offenders, which they are, and not as common criminals, which they are not?"

In November 1908 Constance Lytton told her aunt, Theresa Earle: "I go deeper and deeper in my enthusiasm to the women, and even for their tactics as I understand it more and more - not only what they do, but what has been done to them to drive them to these tactics." She was especially impressed with Annie Kenney, who was one of the WSPU's full-time organisers. Lytton later wrote in Prison and Prisoners (1914): "Women had tried repeatedly, and always in vain, every peaceable means open to them of influencing successive governments. Processions and petitions were absolutely useless. In January 1909 I decided to become a member of the Women's Social and Political Union."

Constance Lytton's decision to join the WSPU horrified her family. Her sister, Emily Lutyens, who was a supporter of the non-militant, National Union of Suffrage Societies, wrote to her aunt, Theresa Earle: "

I must write you a line of deepest sympathy. I know how you must be suffering about Constance. We cannot disguise from ourselves that our old Constance has gone forever. I feel, whatever it may be in the future, for the moment she has passed out of the lives of her family. She has become an impersonal being, and no one will feel this so much as you."

On 24th February 1909, Constance took part in a demonstration at the House of Commons. Constance was arrested and imprisoned but when the authorities found out that she was the daughter of Lord Lytton, the former Viceroy of India, they ordered her release. As well as her social position, the British government were also aware of Constance Lytton's health problems, and they feared that if she went on hunger strike she would die and then the WSPU would have a famous martyr.

Lytton joined a group of suffragettes, including Jane Brailsford and Emily Wilding Davison, who resolved to undertake acts of violence in order to protest against forcible feeding. On 9th November 1909, she was arrested in Newcastle. She was sent to prison for 30 days. "Mrs. Brailsford, who had struck at the barricade with an axe, was also given the option of being bound over, which she, of course, refused, with the alternative of a month's imprisonment in the second division. We were put again into a van, but had only a short way to drive. We were shown into a passage of the prison where the Governor came and spoke to us. He was very civil, and begged us not to go on the hunger-strike." She did but as she pointed out in Prisons and Prisoners (1914) after a couple of days "the wardress came in and announced that I was released, because of the state of my heart!"

Constance Lytton was angry that she should be given special treatment and decided to adopt a false identity. After another demonstration Constance was arrested but this time she gave her name as Jane Wharton, a London seamstress. Constance was sentenced to fourteen days and when she refused to eat, she was forced fed eight times. When the authorities discovered Jane Wharton's true identity she was immediately released.

Colonel Linley Blathwayt was sympathetic to the WSPU cause and he built a summer-house in the grounds of his Batheaston estate that was called the "Suffragette Rest". Members of the WSPU who endured hunger strikes went to stay at Eagle House and the summer-house. In April 1910, Emily Blathwayt recorded in her diary: "Linley and Annie Kenney brought Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence and Lady Constance from the station in a taxi-cab in time for lunch and they went to the meeting in the same way... Lady Constance showed how she was first prejudiced against militant methods till gradually step by step she found she must go to prison herself. I suppose future generations will give honour to these noble people. When the cause becomes the fashion, we shall have the stupid people in it."

Constance Lytton and Annie Kenney at Eagle House in 1910
Constance Lytton and Annie Kenney at Eagle House in 1910

In April 1910, Colonel Linley Blathwayt decided to create a suffragette arboretum in a field adjacent to Eagle House. During that month Constance Lytton, Annie Kenney, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Clara Codd, were all invited to tree planting ceremonies. On 22nd April, Constance planted a Cupressus Allumii in the suffragette arboretum.

On 12th June 1910 Lytton was appointed as a paid organizer of the WSPU with a salary of £2 a week, backdated six months. The salary enabled her to take a small flat, very close to that of Mary Neal, opposite Euston Station.

In November 1911 Constance Lytton was arrested for window-breaking but was released when it became clear that she was in danger of dying. Soon afterward Constance suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed. Now unable to take an active role in the suffragette struggle, Constance concentrated on writing articles and pamphlets on women's rights for the WSPU. Constance also wrote a book on her experiences in the suffragette movement called Prisons and Prisoners (1914).

When the WSPU ended their militant campaign in 1914, Lytton gave her support to Marie Stopes and her campaign to establish birth-control clinics. Lady Lytton totally disapproved of her daughter's political activities. However, she gave Constance the assistance she needed to write her books and nursed her daughter, who was now seriously ill.

Just before her death, Constance Lytton wrote to her aunt, Theresa Earle: "If it should happen… I am happy to die. If, as many people believe, we step into a higher life, but are again with loved companions who have died before, then it will be very good. Death to me is like a gentle lover…I am so tired of life, I should like to be taken in his sheltering arms and have an end… I have long hoped to die, and since I've seen this possible road, I have felt most wonderfully happy. Of late years I have seen and felt much of the sad side of death - the separation from those we love. Now I see the joyful side - the release from bodily ills - and it is restful beyond all words."

Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton died at Knebworth House on 2nd May 1923.

Primary Sources

(1) At first Constance Lytton completely disagreed with the methods used by the suffragettes. On 10th September 1908 Constance Lytton wrote to Adela Smith.

I met some suffragettes down at the club in Littlehampton… They have come into personal first-hand contact with prison abuses. My hobby of prison reform has thereby taken on new vigour… I intend to interview the female inspector of Holloway prison, and will take part in the Suffragette breakfast with the next batch of released Suffrage prisoners on September 16. I had a long talk with Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence. She mostly talked Woman Suffrage, about which, though I sympathize with the cause, she left me unconverted as to my criticisms of some of their methods.

(2) On 14th October 1908, Constance Lytton met Mrs. Pethick Lawrence in London. That night Constance Lytton wrote a letter to her mother.

I went to the Suffragette Office to see Mrs. Lawrence and to congratulate her on the meeting of the day before, inquire the latest news, and finally say: "You know my reservations as to some of your methods, but my sympathies are much more with you than with any of your opponents… I want to be of use if I can. Is there anything I can possibly do to help you?" A good deal of talk ensued. She said, "Yes," I could help them. Could I see to it that Herbert Gladstone was asked to treat the Suffragettes as political offenders, which they are, and not as common criminals, which they are not?

(3) By November 1908, Constance Lytton began to change her mind about the WSPU. This was reflected in a letter she wrote to Theresa Earle.

I go deeper and deeper in my enthusiasm to the women, and even for their "tactics" as I understand it more and more - not only what they do, but what has been done to them to drive them to these tactics.

(4) In her book Prison and Prisoners, Constance Lytton explained her decision to join the WSPU.

Women had tried repeatedly, and always in vain, every peaceable means open to them of influencing successive governments. Processions and petitions were absolutely useless. In January 1909 I decided to become a member of the Women's Social and Political Union.

(5) On 26th March 1909, Emily Lutyens, Constance Lytton's sister, wrote a letter to her aunt, Theresa Earle, when she discovered that Constance Lytton had joined the WSPU.

I must write you a line of deepest sympathy. I know how you must be suffering about Constance. We cannot disguise from ourselves that our old Constance has gone forever. I feel, whatever it may be in the future, for the moment she has passed out of the lives of her family. She has become an impersonal being, and no one will feel this so much as you.

(6) Constance Lytton, Prison and Prisoners (1914)

The magistrates convicted me of "disorderly behaviour with intent to disturb the peace," and bound me over in the sum of fifty pounds and two sureties of twenty-five pounds each, to be enforced for twelve months; in default, one mouth's imprisonment in the second division. I, of course, had no option of finding sureties for twelve months, and was sentenced to the month's imprisonment. My companion, Miss Davison, was dismissed, as she had literally done nothing.

Mrs. Brailsford, who had struck at the barricade with an axe, was also given the option of being bound over, which she, of course, refused, with the alternative of a month's imprisonment in the second division.

We were put again into a van, but had only a short way to drive. We were shown into a passage of the prison where the Governor came and spoke to us. He was very civil, and begged us not to go on the hunger-strike. Then the matron came, a charming and very refined woman, who walked with a stick, being lame. Miss Davison had headed our little hand of twelve; when she was dismissed, Miss Dorothy Pethick, Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence's youngest sister, was our head and spoke for us. Her face had all the beauty that freshness, youth, and grace could give it, and, with it all, for her age - she was twenty-seven - there

was a wonderful strength about it. She spoke civilly to the Governor, but in a very determined way. He could not do enough for us.... Finally, Mrs. Brailsford and I were taken to different cells on the ground floor, where we were separated completely from the others.

The second morning, Wednesday, October 13, when the doctors came, I stood in the corner of my cell with my arms crossed and my fingers caught in my nostrils and my mouth. It was the best position I knew of for them not to be able to feed me by nose or mouth without having first a considerable struggle. They came, and after I saw that they had no tube I carne out from my corner and let them both look at my heart. They thumped, each of them in turn, and felt my pulse as well. Then they appeared to be agreed and went out. I said to them, "You seemed to be puzzled by my heart; I can tell you about it if you like." But they had made up their minds about something, and did not want any, help from me.

A wardress came in and announced that I was released, because of the state of my heart! Though this was fairly evident from the visit of the outside doctor, I had not realised it. I gathered my things together and went out. I called to Mrs. Brailsford; she was released too.

(7) In January 1910, Constance Lytton visited WSPU members in prison.

Mary Gawthorpe was ill with an internal complaint. Mary said, with tears in her eyes, as she threw her arms round me: "Oh, and these are women quite unknown - nobody knows or cares about them except their own friends. They go to prison again and again to be treated like this, until it kills them!"

(8) Emily Blathwayt, diary entry (22nd April, 1910)

Linley (Blathwayt) and Annie Kenney brought Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence and Lady Constance from the station in a taxi-cab in time for lunch and they went to the meeting in the same way... Lady Constance showed how she was first prejudiced against militant methods till gradually step by step she found she must go to prison herself. I suppose future generations will give honour to these noble people. When the cause becomes the fashion, we shall have the stupid people in it.

(9) Constance Lytton describing a WSPU demonstration in Downing Street. Letter to Theresa Earle on 6th December 1910.

I saw hundreds of women doing no violence, thrown about by the police till they were black and blue, their arms twisted, wrenched out of joint, women of over 60 or 70 thrown on to the ground and trampled on, systematically kicked and pinched in the most sensitive parts of their bodies… The police hold the woman's arms behind her, thus thrusting forward the sensitive glands of the breasts, so that it is here she receives all the pressure when pushed into a thick crowd.

(10) Constance Lytton was force-fed in October 1909. An account of her experiences was included in her book Prison and Prisoners.

Two of the wardresses took hold of my arms, one held my head and one my feet. The doctor leant on my knees as he stooped over my chest to get at my mouth. I shut my mouth and clenched my teeth… The doctor seemed annoyed at my resistance and he broke into a temper as he pried my teeth with the steel implement. The pain was intense and at last I must have given way, for he got the gap between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it until my jaws were fastened wide apart. Then he put down my throat a tube, which seemed to me much too wide and something like four feet in length. I choked the moment it touched my throat. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down. I was sick all over the doctor and wardresses. As the doctor left he gave me a slap on the cheek. Presently the wardresses left me. Before long I heard the sounds of the forced feeding in the next cell to mine. It was almost more than I could bear, it was Elsie Howley. When the ghastly process was over and all quiet. I tapped on the wall and called out at the top of my voice. 'No Surrender', and then came the answer in Elsie's voice, 'No Surrender'.

(11) Constance Lytton, letter to Major Neville Lytton, January 13th, 1918.

The women who fought for it - some giving their lives, others mutilated for life, others coming through after much suffering, all greater than mine - have won the victory now for women in Great Britain, and very soon in the four corners of the earth - in America, Canada, South Africa, in the other countries of Europe, in India (though very slowly, I fear, there), in China."

(12) Now an invalid and seriously ill, Constance Lytton was told to expect death. She wrote a letter to her aunt, Theresa Earle, explaining her thoughts.

If it should happen… I am happy to die. If, as many people believe, we step into a higher life, but are again with loved companions who have died before, then it will be very good. Death to me is like a gentle lover…I am so tired of life, I should like to be taken in his sheltering arms and have an end… I have long hoped to die, and since I've seen this possible road, I have felt most wonderfully happy. Of late years I have seen and felt much of the sad side of death - the separation from those we love. Now I see the joyful side - the release from bodily ills - and it is restful beyond all words.